How the Gateways became the most famous lesbian club in the world

For 50 years, “bohemians hung out on a humble side street in exclusive Chelsea, west London, the artists drank – and naughty sex happened.”

So explained former Great British Baking Show Host Sandi Toksvig in a new movie, grind gateways, A documentary chronicling life behind closed doors at the oldest lesbian club of all time – and, as Toksvig puts it, “the most famous lesbian club in the world”. First opening as a mixed-gender venue in 1931 before duly locking out men 35 years later, Gateways Club’s green door has drawn regulars from Patricia Highsmith to British artist Maggi Hambling.

The murder of Sister George, the 1968 film adaptation of Frank Marcus’ 1964 play about an aging lesbian soap opera diva, was filmed there while the club’s real clientele danced alongside its stars Beryl Reid and Susannah York. Mick Jagger once tried to convince the owner to break women’s policy for him, promising to wear a dress if he was allowed down the rickety steps and into the throbbing basement below.

LGBT Poetry Prize winner Trudy Howson was a teenager in Lancashire, northern England, when she first came across the mention of Gateways. She read a review by The murder of Sister George– one who denounced the “horrible club” where it was filmed – “and I just read it and I thought, I have to *go*.” Howson knew she was a lesbian, but “I’ve never had one Met gays… so it was like a beacon for me.”

The club was owned by Ted Ware, who won the lease in 1943 after a boxing bet. A group of his lesbian friends had been banned from the Bag O’Nails pub in Soho, their favorite hangout, so he offered them the space that would become a community landmark by his final night in 1985.

He ran the club alongside his wife Gina – an Italian actress who ruled the enclave off the famous King’s Road with glamor and an iron fist. Behind the bar was Smithy, a Californian who had served in the US Air Force and whom Ted had invited to move in with them in the family home. (All Gateways-goers assumed that she and Gina were in a relationship.) Gina Jr., Ted and Gina’s daughter, who was tasked with wiping out tonic water bottles stored in the garage, often ran through the store and Three -Counting penny pieces Cash register for the cigarette machines.

The first time she descended the steps, “I found it super scary and super exciting,” Howson recalls. “None of the women I was interested in really interested in me because the Gates had a very strict dress code at the time” — her waist-length hair made her seem too femme to find anyone in the same clique. Still, the place was synonymous with steam, where everyone was in search of a drink, a dance and more.

“Any kind of shame or fear or anxiety they might have felt in the outside world for being gay or bisexual or just being curious was completely cast off as they walked down those steps.”

— Trudy Howson

In fact, the documentary is named for the movement conjured up on its floors, which would see women circling tight enough to bring each other to orgasm. Which “was very surprising when it first happened,” Howson laughs.

“It was a great place to get off,” Hambling agrees with the film, admitting she’s been banned twice for suggestive dancing. All of this speaks to a sexual freedom that is denied behind the green door; where you could lose your job in a department store or as a teacher or nanny because you are a lesbian.

“It was a secret club, and it made people stick together,” Howson recalls of “the tribe” that was created there. Whatever the pretense to employers or even relatives at Gateways, “everyone knew… Any kind of shame, fear or anxiety they might have felt in the outside world for being gay or bisexual or just being curious was completely shelved as soon as.” she went down those steps.”


Ted Ware, left, and lesbian friends.

Photo illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy Gateways Grind

Jacquie Lawrence, the film’s director, never experienced this herself and moved to London a few months after the club closed. “I just missed it,” she laughs. in the grind gatewaysbut she was able to breathe new life into the place – and the juggernaut continues to grow.

The woman who DJed on the last night of the club got in touch with her just this week; Since the film has been screened at festivals (including Inside Out in Toronto, where it won the audience award) and aired on the BBC in the UK, “we’ve been hearing more and more,” she says. “We have more and more stories and more artifacts, more archives” – now so many that she hopes to be able to bring them together in an exhibition and take them to the streets.

“My hope was that as many people in as many cities and as many countries as possible would realize what a rich, rich history we have in this stinky little basement off the King’s Road.”

“These stories should be honored and not hidden.”

— Sandy Toksvig

Since Howson appeared in the documentary, which will also air at the British Film Institute in London this weekend as part of Pride month, Howson has been contacted by others who frequent the venue. As funny as the reverie is, Gateway’s grind speaks to something bigger, she thinks: the need to tell women’s stories from a time when they were swept under the rug. The film proposes that a blue plaque – an initiative of the English Heritage program to mark historically significant sites – be installed in front of the club’s door, which has now been painted over.

The application is still pending. Which is “ridiculous‘ Howson says of the plaques heaped on ‘old gentlemen … we get lord, lord, lord – but what about these places? The Gates have enriched and empowered the lives of so many lesbians; it made them feel valuable.”


Susannah York and Beryl Reid do Laurel and Hardy impressions in a scene from The Killing of Sister George, which was filmed at the Gateways.

Photo illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Everett

“This is what happens with lesbian landmarks in history; They literally get painted over,” Toksvig says in the film, trying to correct the situation with a can of green emulsion. “These stories should be honored, not hidden.”

Lawrence hopes grind gateways will do that and serve as “a clarion call for lesbians to tell their stories … we were invisible,” she says, but with more drama like mr jack This way of thinking comes to the fore and has no place anymore. “We will become more visible and have even more exciting and fascinating stories to tell.”


Sandi Toksvig, top left, directs a new documentary about Gateways Club called ‘Gateways Grind’, which interviews veteran regulars such as British artist Maggi Hambling, bottom right, whilst re-enacting other scenes from the iconic club, right.

Photo illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy Gateways Grinds

THE GATEWAYS CLUB by Trudy Howson (LGBT Poet Laureate)

It was a place where heart’s desires blossomed.

A secret known only to a few.

Where women became what they wanted to be

Let their sexuality shine through.

Down a narrow stairwell on a Chelsea street

With Smithy guarding the door

Was every kind of butch and femme lesbian,

One visit and you’ll be back for more.

Listening to the jukebox in a smoky room

Learn the Gateways Grind.

Make new friends over drinks and cigarettes

Who were experienced, tough and friendly.

What stories were told, what daring deeds

Were shared with laughter and tears.

When flirting and kissing and competing and lying

Flooded with vodka and beer

I will never forget the Gateways Club

And its place in my lesbian past

How it opened up a world of possibilities for me

May his legend prosper and endure How the Gateways became the most famous lesbian club in the world


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